Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My advice to the new DocNYC Fest

The best news of the last couple of weeks was the launch of the new documentary film festival in NYC - DOC NYC. The child of Thom Powers, Raphaela Neihausen, John Vanco and Harris Dew, this festival promises to be a great new addition to the fest scene. This isn't news - Indiewire and thousands of others reported it, but I received an email invite to give feedback on the festival at a meeting this week, and because I’m in Orlando on the Shorts jury for the Florida Film Festival, I'll miss the opportunity. The founders asked for feedback anyway, and while I think they meant privately via email, I figure it can't hurt to tell everyone what I think - because it's all positive and because it’s really advice for all film festivals.

First - congrats to the team - you've assembled a great group, have central locations and an amazing board/advisory board. The overall response seems positive and the goals of the organization look great. While I am the first to say the last thing the world needs is another film festival, we do need a good showcase of documentaries in NYC - something devoted just to the form, unlike the other (great) fests in town. I also really like that you are saying it won’t just be film, but also other formats, which is great. So, here’s my thoughts on the fest and what I think you need to do to have great success and impact on the field.

Premieres - In your press release and in the early articles on the festival you mention that not every film in competition must be a premiere - stay true to your word. The very last thing we need is any new fest demanding premieres. This will be tough - mainly with the press - who are probably more responsible for premiere-itis than any single group - but it’s always tempting to let premiere status decide what gets in when you have a lot of good things to choose from. Film A is a premiere, Film B isn’t....so you program Film A. Don’t fall into this trap. Furthermore, be prepared to go an extra step - be willing to show a film even if it played somewhere else in NYC already. I know, this one is tough to swallow, but I promise you, if it’s a good film and there’s a good conversation around it, you’ll sell it out.

Formats - You mention that you won’t be focused just on film - hurray! We need more festivals that curate beyond just film. I applaud the idea to include other formats. I hope the list is wide open, as I’d love to see in the mix: gallery installations; transmedia projects; radio; photo; books; conversations/panels about new directions in news - pretty much anything that fits the realm of documentary. Heck, go crazy and take a page from Godard and find the documentary in a fiction film as well. While we’re speaking about formats, let’s also speak about form. The doc field is too obsessed right now with social issue docs. Sure, we need them and need to change the world and all that, but documentary doesn’t begin and end with social issues, so keep the programming broad and please keep in mind the more experimental docs. ‘Nuff said.

Community - You say you want to build community, and this is a great goal. Just keep in mind, this means not just uniting the usual suspects. Build community means bringing new people into it. Get ye out to the masses!

Audience Building - Again, enlarging the audience means bringing new audiences to the table - bring in the masses, which means you’ll have to take some cues from another fest in town and market like crazy. Most of them aren’t aware of STF or any of our favorite doc blogs. Also, remember that audience building starts before the show - in fact, it starts now, start building your online community, and your local community, now.

Filmmaker friendly - I have the utmost respect for everyone involved in this, mainly because I know each of you cares not just about film, but also about filmmakers. This is a great chance to make a festival extremely filmmaker friendly (lots of fests are, this won’t be new). Take care of the filmmakers, but not just in hospitality. My challenge to you - figure out just how open you can be with everything. Share data with your filmmakers, help them sell DVDs, help them connect, help them parlay a NYC screening into buzz elsewhere, think of new ways to connect them with audiences.

Paying filmmakers - John Vanco used to push film festivals, publicly, that all of them should pay filmmakers for their screenings. I disagreed with him then, but now is a perfect chance for him to take up his own challenge. Should you decide not to do this - John should explain why on the festival website. I have lots of arguments why not, which I’ll gladly share, but with so many filmmakers upset about this (as most recently voiced at the Filmmaker Summit), it seems like a good time to address it directly.

Tools - What the world needs now is tools, tools tools. You mention briefly in the announcement that you’ll be experimenting with these and I encourage you to really embrace this idea. Build tools to help audiences coalesce around films, to help filmmakers get their films out in new ways. What will these tools look like? They aren’t just things like VOD and download. Perhaps it’s apps that allow me to not just build my festival schedule, but also find the other films by those directors and add them to my Netflix queue. Or perhaps be able to share the film’s info with my friends in the town of the filmmaker’s next festival stop. Or that let me opt in to give my contact info to the filmmaker, or a buck or two. Or that connect me to other films I might like (not just at the festival, mind you) based on metadata from my selections. There’s lots of possibility, but partner with some upstart companies and - this is the crucial part - get them to adapt to your needs.

Conversations vs panels - This is a personal pet peeve of mine, and one which you should definitely run by others before following my lead - kill all panels. They’re worthless. Complete waste of time. Painful. Horrible. Not a single grain of knowledge has ever leaked out of the head of any panelist at a film festival in the history of film festivals. Ready-made sound-bites? Check. Self-promoting aggrandizement? Check. Way for a festival to claim some weird sense of importance by rubbing elbows with some industry person or celebrity? Check. Actual, useful knowledge....nope. I speak on them, and probably still will from time to time, but they should be banished. By the time you intro everyone, leave some time for questions at the end and make up for the one panelist who insists on showing some stupid trailer that has nothing to do with the topic, each panelist gets about 45 seconds to say anything at all. What a waste.

Conversations, on the other hand, can be valuable. Just two, or perhaps three, people speaking in depth about a topic is much more useful. Even old fashioned debates could be a nice change of pace - Rupert Murdoch vs. Jamie King on piracy. Now that would be fun. Of course, I’m tempted to also ask that you cut Q & A’s after the film too....but they seem popular in spite of their usual inanity, so perhaps you should ignore me on this altogether. I will make one exception to this rule - when there’s a brief panel following a film, concerning the subject of the film, it can be interesting. This exception only applies when the speakers are truly knowledgeable, good speakers (note to panel organizers, this means they don’t need to be an NPR host or some celebrity) and working deeply with the topics at hand. For example, when I worked at the Atlanta Film Fest, we often invited experts from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) whenever we had a film dealing with public health issues. Worked great and was much more interesting than just getting the director’s take on the subject (you know, because we had just gotten that for 90 minutes).

I’m sure I could come up with more advice, but this seems like enough, and I’m sure that given the smart people you’ve already brought to the table, you’ll do just fine. Overall, I’m excited at the prospects for this festival and can’t wait to buy tickets to the first event. Kudos to all of you for putting it together.


Anonymous said...

Hey Brian,

Great comments and a great conversation-starter. Especially liked your ideas about helping filmmakers with tools and with building on festival screenings. us Indie filmmakers are pretty overwhelmed individuals so by the time we get around to the actual screening of the finished product we don't have a lot of energy left to figure out how to properly upload files for VOD or what kind of schwag to sell at shows. Thanks for advocating for us!


Lau said...

I think it's about time that festivals really become a way for filmmakers and their most unreachable target audiences to connect. Working with filmmakers on audience building and community engagement I'd really appreciate the collaboration of film festival.
I already expressed my joy to Thom and I extend it here to Raphaela for their new endeavor. It sound extremely exciting and I only wish I was in NY to be able to attend the festival.

One note: social issues doc can also be different from the usual activist piece. I think civil issues should be a part, even if subtle, of every movie, fiction and doc but I see your point regarding a lot of docs that have the same style being popular today.
Thanks Brian.

Anonymous said...

I really agree with your social issue doc comment. Often times those films seem too much like 'campaign films.'

And if you critique them people are like, 'What? You don't like dolphins? What kind of person are you?'

Docs that comment on trends happening in pop culture are being overlooked in the present doc market. It's a shame.

Dempsey Rice said...

Thanks for saying that not all docs are social media!!!

Unknown said...

On target. Every one of these ideas was put into practice at "docfest" 10 years ago. With the addition of 1100-word essays written about each film. Shame nothing much has changed since.

David Leitner
"docfest," The New York International Documentary Festival

BNewmanSBoard said...

David - thanks for bringing this up - I found this great old post from Eugene in Filmmaker Mag on the fest when it started. Great goals:
"With docfest, Festival Director and Founder Gary Pollard and staff have not only launched a much needed new festival for non-fiction work, but with the Documentary Center, they have the potential to solidly promote a continuing movement. Among the goals that Pollard has unveiled for the future are a docfest film tour, year-round doc screenings in New York City, and an annual filmmakers retreat conference on Block Island, Rhode Island."

What comes around....